Belly up to the barflies: Cast members of Syracuse Stage’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile.
When he first entered our sights a
generation ago, Steve Martin looked like an upscale Jerry Lewis. Since
then he has struggled to get us to think otherwise, most often as a
closet aesthete and intellectual. He’s let us know he was a straight-A
philosophy student in college and owns one of the best art collections
of anyone in show business. And he can always surprise, such as
supplying the story line for Don Cheadle’s thriller Traitor (2008).
With the opening of his first stage play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile at
Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre in 1993, he began to rebrand himself as
Tom Stoppard-lite. For this Syracuse Stage production, however,
director Penny Metropulos takes Martin back to his roots, whether he
likes it or not. Her laugh-filled, crowd-pleasing Picasso feels like a Saturday Night Live romp of 30 years ago. Yet by treating Martin’s comedy of ideas as farce, you diminish, well, the ideas.
Martin has never denied that the model for Picasso is Tom Stoppard’s Travesties (1974),
which features an unlikely meeting of novelist James Joyce, Bolshevik
Vladimir Lenin and Dadaist poet Tristan Tzara. All three had lived in
Zurich at the same time but never actually met, so Stoppard invented
such a rendezvous.
Martin knew that Pablo Picasso, age 23,
frequented a Montmarte tavern named the Lapin Agile in 1904 and even
produced a painting of the interior with the bartender-proprietor
Freddy. As dozens of other soon-to-be-famous names were also bellying
up to the bar, it was only a small leap to imagine the presence of
another mind, just emerging from obscurity. Albert Einstein in 1904 was
toiling away in the Swiss patent office and did not speak French.
Metropulos’ interpretation begins
brightly and smoothly. Barkeep Freddy (Michael Tisdale), one of the two
people we are sure was there in 1904, is rooted in reality, often
concerned with logistical and financial questions. Similarly, his
cigarette-smoking waitress Germaine (Nancy Rodriguez) speaks for
incipient feminism and is anything but a cartoon.
Benefiting more from Metropulos’
approach is the third Lapin denizen, the cynical old man Gaston (Craig
MacDonald), whose frequent trips to the latrine come at intervals to
aid his timing. Although sporting a blue beret and repeatedly calling
himself a Frenchman, Gaston is a Mr. Everyman, a creature of appetites,
who punctures pretension, like the penguin Punk in an Oliphant cartoon.
Of the six Gastons this reviewer has seen in different productions,
MacDonald’s is the most explosive and the most successful.
A half-hour before the title character
arrives we have Albert Einstein, speaking with a prominent German
accent, just as later Picasso will have a Spanish one. In a dash of
post-modernism, Freddy objects to Einstein’s early arrival and grouses
that it does not match the order given in the program, which an usher
dutifully produces. She switches place with lovely airhead Suzanne
(Susannah Flood), who prates on about the romantic promises made by and
her longing for the great Spanish painter.
Einstein, upon arrival, delivers one
terrific physical joke, but gets most of his laughter verbally,
following two themes. One is that he’s a novice author, hoping to
achieve fame with his pamphlet, The Special Theory of Relativity, that
almost no one can read. And second, on what applied relativity might
mean. Should he meet an intended date at this tavern or the one they
agreed on, as the likelihood of her reaching either is about the same.
Not what Einstein actually said, but still effective.
Building anticipation more for the
title character is the critic Sagot (Larry Paulsen). He supplies
important information about the art market Picasso is about to enter,
and also relates the insider’s apercu that two subjects in paintings
never sell. They are Jesus and sheep, the latter a portent of things to
come. The painting above Freddy’s bar is of, yes, sheep.
Director Metropulos’ vision begins to
go awry with the entrance of Picasso (Joseph Midyett), a slight, rather
impish boy given to hyperbole about himself. We have been led in the
play to believe than Picasso has a way with women. In life the painter
was a greater stud than Jimi Hendrix or Warren Beatty. Any director is
entitled to a new interpretation (maybe a fat Laura in The Glass Menagerie?),
but Martin’s words imply that in the conflict between art and science,
the intense, somewhat nerdy scientist suffers a disadvantage against
the swagger and bravado of the artist. When Martin workshopped the play
in his home, he had Tom Hanks read Einstein and lush-voiced Chris
Sarandon play Picasso.
For a play running less than two hours
without intermission, Martin has much more to say about what the coming
20th century will bring. Denizens of the tavern, including Freddy and
Germaine, fantasize about the future (looking back from 1993), like
predicting air travel; some forecasts are also breathtakingly off the
mark, such as Germany becoming a force for world peace. Interrupting
such reverie, like a commercial at higher decibels on a late-night
cable channel, comes the incarnation of hucksterism: Charles Dabernow
Schmendiman (Brendan Naylor), with his cockamamie new building product,
But the larger question on Martin’s
mind is not crass commercialism but rather commercialism’s monster
child, popular culture. The text of the play calls for an absurd
transition, and while it is insanely impossible, it is not farcical.
Martin is a product of television, and also, to a degree, its victim.
He’s not celebrating the observation that rock stars are viewed as
greater geniuses than scientists or painters, or that more people fret
over the travails of Jon and Kate Gosselin than the future of health
care or the war in Afghanistan. At the end of the 20th century, Martin
saw pop culture lighting up the sky, often obscuring other lights.
In this production, extra applause is
merited for Susannah Flood who appears as three women, two not
mentioned here, and Syracuse University Drama Department student
Brendan Naylor holds his own amid a sea of Equity players. William
Bloodgood’s expanding set reveals awesome surprises, well served by Don
Darnutzer’s skillful lighting. Deb Trout’s costumes give us more
stylish people than ever appeared in the historical Lapin Agile, the
most arresting on actress Flood in the brief scene where she shows up
as an unexpected date.
This production runs through Oct. 31. See Times Table for information.